The scenario is classic, even hackneyed. Two families have been feuding for generations. Then a young man from one family meets a young woman from the other, and by their marriage the parties are reconciled. Peace reigns. Children (one imagines) run, laughing, through sunny fields of flowers. Bees buzz, lambs gambol, and crops flourish. Then, at a party, an old man rises to address the young man and says…
“Thinkest thou, Ingiald, as at ease thou sittest, to avenge Fróthi, thy father, on his banesmen?
Or are you pleased, rather to fill your paunch than to make stern war on the murderers of your father?”
This old man, you see, is Starkath, once a warrior in the service of Ingiald’s father. Starkath has pretty simple ideas about the meaning of life, and they have nothing to do with love and peace. They center on honor. And honor is expressed in vengeance. Any man who trades honor for love is contemptible in Starkath’s world.
The speech comes from “The Lay of Ingiald,” as translated in Lee M. Hollander’s Old Norse Poems. It’s an effective speech; Ingiald puts his wife away and slaughters her kinsmen. I read this sort of thing quite a lot in researching my novels, but I’ll admit this particular Viking poem shocked even me a little. In spite of the history I’ve studied, I’m still a man of my time, and I have to confess to a prejudice for peace over war, and for the boy getting the girl over blood vengeance.
But people haven’t always thought that way, as “The Lay of Ingiald” demonstrates. Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in “Ingiald” are offered for informational purposes only, and do not necessarily reflect those of this writer, the American Spectator Online, its management or employees.
Still, it’s worth knowing that such ideas exist, and that they’re as human as — or more human, in terms of historical provenance, than — the tropes of contemporary literature, music, and drama.
There are very few things that make a person more provincial, as I see it, than a liberal arts education. It’s one of the tragedies of our time that so many Americans (like me) were fitted for cultural blinkers in college. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to prefer love to war. I’m all for that. What’s dangerous in the extreme is assuming that it just comes naturally to human beings to feel that way.
I recall a song I used to hear on Christian Contemporary radio. I don’t remember the title, but it was about how we’re all essentially alike around the world. There was a line about how fathers all feel the same way at their daughters’ weddings.
“Well, I suppose,” I thought when I heard it. “Except for those fathers in the Far East, for instance, who sell their daughters as prostitutes, just happy to be rid of a mouth to feed.”
“Human,” you see, has more than one definition. Add an “e” to the word and you’ve got “humane,” but that “e” doesn’t come as standard equipment. You’ve got to pay extra for it. You pay for it through centuries of cultural reconditioning and education. Our novels and movies lie when they try to tell us that people thought as we do a thousand or two thousand years ago. Dueling was acceptable in parts of the U.S. well into the 19th century. Slavery still exists in the Middle East. Tribal wars rage in Africa right now.
Too much of our thinking is rooted in clichés, reinforced by Humanities classes in college, or worse, movies and TV shows. George W. Bush, for whom I have great respect, made this kind of error when he declared that “The desire for freedom resides in every human heart.” A noble sentiment, but it’s based on the original “Star Trek” pilot, not actual history. Patrick Henry was a spokesman for the American ideal, not for the majority of human beings, who generally choose slavery over death when given the option.
The Left, of course, is especially deluded. Liberals are still waiting for the postman to bring the good news of how the Arab Spring is flowering in equal rights for women and gays. They might, when cornered, admit that all the welfare money they’ve poured into the inner cities hasn’t yet produced the perfect, Rousseauean Free Citizen they’ve been expecting all these years, but they’re confident such an evolutionary mutation will appear any moment now.
In a way, as a Christian, I see all this as a kind of overachievement of Christian civilization. While Christian faith itself seems to be diminishing in the western world, a naïve misunderstanding of the Golden Rule — one that sees it as a description rather than a challenge — lingers in the popular consciousness, and seems to have left us with precisely the wrong message.
Which can be pleasant while it lasts.
But Starkath is still out there, and I think he’s planning to crash the party again.